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Opening Your Oyster - Got the Degree, Now Get a Job!

09/06/2014 15:34 BST | Updated 07/08/2014 10:59 BST

So here you are. The exams are here at last and soon, after long hard years, the education system will finally spit you out. You are on course for the degree you had hoped for and the horizon should be aglow with the gold of success. Alas, then, that across that gilded prospect there should fall the shadow of a cloud. This year, as always, many talented graduates will have difficulty in finding a job.

Of course times are hard and the competition is intense, so you will need to put your best foot forward . Here, however there is a snag. Your prestigious degree may satisfy the most cynical employer as to your academic abilities. What it has not taught you, however, is something more immediate. How do you actually go about getting a job?.

Clearly you need help but perhaps, like many smart young people, you'd be embarrassed to ask your friends. That certainly makes things more difficult, so let's try a different tack. Can you think of any advice which you have received recently which might assist you in your present predicament? Like many of your age I expect that you will have been taking driving lessons. If so, you will probably have been preserved from disaster by an instructor whose oft-repeated mantra guaranteed safety and progress. So "mirror, signal, and then manoeuvre," let it be!

Mirror

The key to any problem is to see and understand it clearly, and getting a job is no exception to this. Begin then by asking yourself what you can bring to the party and how you can sell it to an employer. You will have been told you that your CV is the most important document in any application. That, like most conventional advice, is wrong. It is, in fact, the second most important document. CVs are fairly standard nowadays and the eye of the reader generally glazes over at the usual array of degrees, Olympic medals, schools built in third world countries and love of the theatre. What is a great deal more revealing is the letter which accompanies the CV. Does the candidate sound like someone who the reader would like to meet or does he or she sound, well, rather a prat? Better the former than the latter, eh? Well then, a few don'ts.

First, do not patronise the reader It is just a little irritating to be told that a twenty three year old will transform your business. Enjoy working in it, yes: transform it, no. Then do not bleat on about how you have followed that particular sector since childhood when actually you read it up from scratch a week ago. No one will be fooled and, anyway, the employer who is hiring an astrophysicist to reinforce the intellectual backbone of his bank might expect him to have spent his degree years studying astrophysics rather than in a somewhat eccentric devotion to the bond markets. It is of course good manners to find out a little about the firm interviewing you and the issues they face but "I saw from the paper that you are expanding into the far East" is more honest and less creepy than pretended insights which will inevitably be found out.

Then avoid at all cost the awful line "If I have one fault it is that I am too exacting with myself". Once upon a time a student must have asked a careers adviser what to say if he was asked whether he had any faults. The latter, presumably neither belonging to nor having met a member of the human race, thought that this dreadful response would combine a becoming modesty with an assurance that the candidate had no weaknesses. That careers adviser should have been fired. So annoying is this asinine and complacent line in an application, that the only proper response by the interviewer is to ask "Would you have written this to a family friend?" The best candidates will laugh and say "of course not": a good interviewer will forgive them. Those who persist in their folly should be cast into the outer darkness.

Now let us shift the lens to the employer. What do you look for there? These days the young graduate cannot be as choosy about his prospective employer as that employer can be about him. Nevertheless there are limits and a job with an employer you do not respect is likely to end in tears. Keep your eyes peeled, then. Most employers will reveal a lot about themselves in the recruitment process and the game is to interpret it. Suppose a firm asks you to take psychometric tests. Is this because they:

1. have a huge number of applicants and have to reduce the list to manageable proportions? That may be an attraction if you are ambitious and tough;

2. are a box checking and bureaucratic organisation? That might not be so bad if box checking and bureaucracy are your thing; or

3. are so lacking in human skills that they cannot distinguish between candidates in any other way? Um, lets just hope that the salary makes it worthwhile.

Often the signals are more subtle than that and I can remember being put off a job by being offered tea from an antique porcelain tea pot. It wasn't that nice people do not use such pots or even that there was anything wrong with the quality of the tea which came out of it. But the elegance of that pot, taken together with disconcertingly opulent offices in the West End of London, made me realise how much I would prefer to work in the monastic severity of the City.

A candidate's antennae should not be tuned solely to information about the prospective employer. Interviewers are often genuinely interested in young people and their careers. Sometimes they will make useful comments and give valuable advice which, even if it won't get you that particular job, may help you to choose another which suits you better. Many years ago I went to an interview with a distinguished merchant bank (the very term shows how long ago it was). The interviewer was pleasant and his questions were shrewd. He drew out of me where my interests lay and what I would like to contribute. Then he stopped the interview. "I am not going to offer you a job" he said "because you don't really want to work for us at all. You would be much better placed to do the things you describe if you joined an international law firm." It is advice for which I have always been grateful.

Signal

So, having assessed the situation, identified your contribution and chosen the targets, how do you land the job. The first hurdle is to get an interview: the second is to get the interviewer to make you an offer. What instruments do you have for getting in the door?

The obvious answer is "why the CV and letter, of course," but that is only part of it. Remember, the employment market really is a market - a place where buyers and sellers are brought together. How do markets work? Why, by the spread of information, through networking, through gossip, through recommendation, through the exchange of favours and in a thousand other ways. Sometimes you will hear a principled young graduate say: "I would never use my parents' contacts." Brilliant! He has left a whole layer of market connections untapped. Anyway his fastidiousness is unlikely to commend him to employers who will expect him to develop all his contacts for use on their behalf. Make sure that your friends and your parents friends know what you are looking for. Many an outstanding career has started with a chat between middle aged men in adjacent aircraft seats.

Of course the letter and the CV cannot be ignored and it is worth taking the trouble to see that they are interesting. The discriminating employer will want enthusiasts, so some enthusiasm about what you have done previously is in order. A little self deprecation can be attractive if done well and a hint that you could say more if you chose can be enticing. My father once ended a letter to the bishop about the shortcomings of the local vicar with the line "by the way it would be nice if he wore shoes at Holy Communion". Actually the vicar wore trainers, but you can imagine the possibilities the bishop discussed with his wife over breakfast and how it kept that particular letter in his mind. Remember then that those who read your application are human and they generally prefer those who interest and amuse them to those who do not.

Manoeuvre

If Machiavelli had ever attended a job interview, I have no doubt that he would have obtained his appointment by manipulating the interviewing panel. That sort of thing is fine if you are Machiavelli; there is nothing more painful, however, than watching the elephantine dance of those who attempt stratagems without the ability to pull them off. The pretended expertise, the boast which does not bear examination. the bogus references to an all consuming passion for auditing - they will all add to the world weariness of the interviewer and make him long to exchange your company for that of just about anyone in the pub as soon as he can. So do remember that being interviewed is about forming a human relationship and that that is more easily achieved through relaxed and honest chat than through the application of fiendish cunning. "Keep it simple, stupid," applies in the interview room as well as elsewhere; if you can keep it pleasant and amusing as well, then so much the better.

Finding a suitable job is a matter of trial and error. Spread the net wide by using your contacts and do not restrict yourself blindly to a narrow band of employers. A less likely application may throw up an interesting opening or show you a different angle. Alternatively, it may increase your network of contacts and produce a lead indirectly. In any case a large number of applications improves the odds. Whether a particular interview will produce a job may be a matter of luck but whether a series of interviews will do so is a matter of statistics.

The fact that luck has a great deal to do with the success of a particular application was brought home vividly to a young friend of mine who was sent by an investment bank to Oxford to interview that year's applicants. As he is still at the bank, I will not mention its name. Anyway there were two of them, my friend and a more experienced colleague. A room had been set aside for their use and in it there was a pile of several hundred application forms. My friend was aghast. It would take days to read them all and only a single day was available . He asked his colleague what they should do. The latter smiled patiently and then, after walking over to the pile of forms, dropped all but the bottom twenty into recycling. "The bank wouldn't want to recruit anyone who is unlucky" he observed, reflectively.

So remember, when and if you are rejected, that it is probably not your fault . Maybe another candidate was the child of a major client. Perhaps he shared the interviewers interest in butterflies, or was freakishly good at figures, or worshipped in the right church or his mother was the chairman's mistress. Who cares? It really doesn't make any difference. Dust yourself down; remember Robert the Bruce and the spider whose persistence inspired him and send off some more application forms. Remember, luck always gives way to statistics in the end.